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Shakhtar Donetsk hoping to 'bring joy to people' in Ukraine

Thomas Klein
November 7, 2023

Shakhtar Donetsk, a football club displaced from Ukraine's Donbas region since 2014, beat Barcelona in a shocking Champions League upset. For the players, it's not just about football but advocating for their country.

Danylo Sikan celebrates his goal against Barcelona
Danylo Sikan's goal was all Shakhtar would need to hand Barcelona a stunning defeat in HamburgImage: Matthias Schrader/AP Photo/picture alliance

The wind whistles through the catacombs of the Volksparkstadion, the home ground of German second-division club Hamburger SV. Shakhtar Donetsk train under the floodlights – and the keen eye of their recently appointed head coach, Marino Pusic.

This is where the team from Ukraine's eastern Donbas region are playing their home Champions League matches this season, the latest being a sensational 1-0 victory over European giants Barcelona on November 7.

Playing home games on the road is nothing new for Shakhtar. Ever since Donetsk was occupied by pro-Russian separatists in 2014, Ukraine's most famous club has not been able to play in its home stadium, Donbass Arena.

Marino Pusic speaking at a press conference
Marino Pusic was an assistant coach at Feyenoord before taking the top job at ShakhtarImage: Henning Rohlfs/Lobeca/IMAGO

"It's a lot of traveling and took us many hours to reach our destination," Pusic said, referring to the distance between Hamburg and the Ukrainian capital, where they faced Dynamo Kyiv in a league match last Friday.

"You can't call it a home game," he stressed.

'It was like a holiday'

Their real home, Donetsk, is even farther away from Hamburg – about 2,500 kilometers (1,553 miles) away. Despite the distance, the players feel that their hometown still identifies with their team.

"Although we haven't played in Donetsk since 2014, we are still a team from Donetsk, in other words, from Donbas. And we represent this region in Ukraine," midfielder Taras Stepanenko told DW.

"The spirit of this city, this region, is unbreakable. It lives in this team, even though the city and the region have been occupied by Russian troops since 2014."

At 34, Stepanenko is one of Shaktar's veterans, having joined the club in 2010.

"At the beginning, it was difficult to get used to playing without fans, without support. We were used to around 25,000 people attending Shakhtar matches in Donetsk. It was a like holiday for them," Stepanenko said.

Donbass Arena hasn't seen football since Russia's illegal annexation of the Crimean peninsula in 2014. Since Russia's full-scale invasion last year, Shakhtar haven't been able to play European matches anywhere else in Ukraine either.

A concrete football in front of the Donbass Arena
Shakhtar haven't been able to play at the Donbass Arena since 2014Image: Valentin Sprinchak/Tass/dpa/picture alliance

Russia's military aggression has turned Shaktar into a nomadic team. Until 2017, they played their home matches in Lviv, Ukraine, around 1,200 kilometers west of Donetsk, before moving to Kharkiv, around 300 kilometers away, before then relocating to Kyiv, where most of the players already lived and trained.

At first, they played their Europa League and Champions League matches in the Polish capital, Warsaw, before moving to Hamburg this year, their fifth "home ground."

Thoughts with people back home

While football remains important to Shakhtar's players, their thoughts are with people back home, where the war is ever-present.

"Sometimes you feel sad, sometimes desperate, sometimes you don't understand why it's happening in your own country. You just have to get used to it and be strong," Stepanenko said.

Many friends and relatives still live in the occupied regions of Ukraine. And the players are in constant contact with the people there.

"Sometimes you forget about football and which opponent is particularly strong with which foot. Because you don't care about that," Stepanenko explained. "It's more important what happens to the people in Ukraine."

Dealing with the current situation is also a challenge for their new coach, Marino Pusic, who has been particularly impressed by the cohesion of his team.

"It's not easy, but I see and feel a fighting spirit throughout the club, everyone is working hard and they're like a family. They support each other."

Raising awareness of Ukraine's plight

Despite the circumstances, the team is determined to perform at their best on the pitch.

Taras Stepanenko dribbling the ball for Ukraine
Taras Stepanenko has made 80 appearances for UkraineImage: Vitalii Kliuiev/IMAGO

"It's our duty to play football and try to achieve good results. People in Europe and the world should remember that there is Ukraine, which needs help," Stepanenko stressed. "And we have to get this message across through sport."

His teammate, 21-year-old Georgiy Sudakov, told DW that thoughts of the war could actually be motivating because "when the whole country is watching you, many people are rooting for you, and through our game we can bring joy to people in this difficult time and convey positive feelings to them."

By beating Barcelona, Shakhtar not only improved their chances of making the knockout stages of the Champions League but took full advantage of the opportunity to raise awareness of Ukraine's plight.

This article was originally published in German.

Edited by: Jonathan Harding